East Tennessee History: The year without a summer
I think we can all agree that 2020 has been an unusual year. The latest has been the weather in May. The month of May could be the coldest May since they have been keeping records. It has also been wet with almost constant rain and flooding.
But is this the worst May ever? Not quite. May 2020 does not compare to the spring and summer of 1816. People have referred to 1816 as the year without a summer for good reason. Snow in June, heavy frosts in June, July and August and weather with temperatures regularly dipping into the low 40s kept most residents of east Tennessee and the rest of the country cold, wet and miserable.
It began in the early spring when a “dry fog” was observed through much of the settled country. People said as the fog reddened it dimmed the sunlight and would not disappear like other fogs. Other fogs would break up as the sun rose or as a storm moved in, but not this fog. It stayed and blocked a full view of the sun for days and then weeks.
As spring of 1816 progressed, typical weather for March and early April stayed into May and then June. Heavy frosts covered the land for days at a time. Snow came in May and stayed for several days because the weather was too cold to melt it.
When farmers should have been plowing and planting, they found land that was too hard to plow or land that would not support a crop.
In many cases crops did not sprout and grow, and when they did, they were killed by a heavy frost, and the farmer would have to start over.
In a time when almost everyone grew their own food and sold a part to buy things they could not make, they found that growing crops like corn, beans and even potatoes became almost impossible.
This caused food prices to skyrocket. People in this area that had trouble making it on hard, rocky ground in a good year, discovered it impossible to grow the basic for survival. Unfortunately, many merchants took advantage of that with higher prices.
The cold persisted. In some places it frosted every day during the month of May. In other places, it snowed six times during June. One person commented that the land “looked barren and desolate like winter.”
Along with the winter-like conditions, the summer of 1816 also experienced temperature extremes. In some places the temperature would soar into the 90s during the day only to fall into the 30s at night.
When August arrived and corn was “in the milk” and at its tenderness, heavy frosts started destroying it. Many people who grew corn could only cut it down and lament that they could not find any use for it.
Before the summer of 1816 was over, many farmers lost much of their crops, and if they were fortunate, had to buy food to survive. If they were not fortunate and did not have the money to purchase food that had rocketed to record-setting prices, they went without and went hungry.
But why did this happen and could this happen again? Most scientists believe the frozen summer of 1816 occurred because of a volcanic eruption in April 1815 of Mount Tambura in present day Indonesia.
They believe this eruption was so expansive that it formed a haze over the planet and caused the temperatures to fall an average of two degrees (F).
Could this happen again? This eruption was called a “Thousand Year Eruption,” but this could easily happen again because of the number of active volcanoes throughout the world. Next time could easily be us.
Yes, we are having some bad days every now and then, but I hope everyone understands that things could be worse. We could be making snowmen in May!